His message: only a carbon tax—not innovation, conservation, or renewable energy—will accelerate the transition from carbon-producing fossil fuels to sustainable energy.
“I think you have tremendous power—you have the power to make change,” Musk told students during a conference at the Sorbonne in Paris, just a 30-minute drive from the 2015 U.N. Climate Change Conference, where negotiations are underway to pass an international treaty that would cut emissions enough to prevent the world’s temperature from rising 2 degrees Celsius.
Musk, who has pushed for a carbon tax before, said the tax should be revenue neutral and phased in over a period of years. A revenue neutral tax means governments would still receive the same amount of money despite a change in the tax code. Under Musk’s scenario, taxes would be weighted heavily on carbon, and reduced in other areas. This approach already occurs, Musk said, citing how taxes are higher on cigarettes and alcohol than fruits and vegetables.
Musk encouraged students to press politicians to take action on climate change because “governments respond to popular pressure.”
Eventually, the world will run out of carbon to mine and burn, and will have to move to sustainable energy, Musk predicted at the conference. A hidden subsidy that benefits all carbon-producing activity—about $5.3 trillion annually, according to the IMF—is delaying that transition, he said.
The net result of this “untaxed negative externality” is 35 gigatonnes of carbon per year being emitted into the atmosphere—additional carbon that Musk described as the “turd in the punch bowl.”
Musk, who is chief executive of all-electric automaker Tesla Motors and aerospace manufacturer SpaceX, said governments, which set how companies are rewarded financially, must send a clear message.
“The fundamental problem is the rules today incent people to create carbon; this is madness,” Musk said. “So what can you do? Whenever you have the opportunity, talk to your politicians, ask them to enact a carbon tax.” Musk also encouraged the audience to talk to their friends about it and to “fight the propaganda from the carbon industry,” which he compared to the tobacco industry’s often spurious strategies to convince consumers smoking is safe.
While Musk tried to stick to the carbon tax message, he did stray into related topics, including energy storage, carbon capture and storage, fusion, the oil and gas lobby power, and the near failure of Tesla TSLA-0.11% and SolarCity [fortune- stock symbol=”SCTY”], where he is chairman of the board.